One hundred billion people have walked this planet. Nearly eight billion of them are alive today. Each has a unique story to tell. No matter what generation and technology are, from the days of the Stone Age all the way to the Digital Age and everything in between, storytelling is crucial for survival as well as success.
From around 70,000 years ago, humans have constructed elaborate stories and convinced as many other people as possible to believe in them. If you simply tell the unvarnished truth, no one will pay attention. Consequently, you would have no power, as power comes from the stories you convince other people to believe. So that’s ultimately what this is about: whoever tells the best story wins.
In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari credits the success of our species Homo Sapiens—versus Neanderthals and even other animals—to our ability to use our imagination to organize and collaborate in huge groups unlike any other animal through language and storytelling. “One-on-one or ten-on-ten, chimpanzees may be better than us,” he explains. “But put 1,000 Sapiens against 1,000 chimps, and the Sapiens will win easily, for 1,000 chimps will never cooperate effectively. Put 100,000 chimps in Wall Street or Yankee Stadium, and you’ll get chaos. Put 100,000 humans there, and you’ll get trade networks and sports contests.”
It all started with the cognitive revolution 70,000 years ago. This was when Homo Sapiens gained the ability to tell about things that only existed in their imagination: fictions. Based on this, Homo Sapiens won the race to develop, because we were able to build and create communities based on a common belief among far more individuals than previously.
It is the imagination of the collective, the ability to believe in something that is purely imaginary, that has helped to ensure that Homo Sapiens have dominated development. The individual or individuals who had and have the ability to tell good stories consequently gain power. Harari refers to this as culture-building, and it is this development that has subsequently become our history.
The Gossip Theory
The theory behind the cognitive revolution is known as The Gossip Theory. According to this theory, before humans learned to gossip, something else must have kept our groups together. The likeliest candidate is the mechanism still employed by other primates: Grooming. This keeps individuals clean, but it also serves an important social function. The exchange of grooming allows group hierarchies to be established and maintained, alliances to be formed.
The only problem is that for groups comprising many individuals, grooming becomes a very time-intensive way of maintaining social bonds. Consequently, there is a maximum group size in which it is possible to maintain sufficiently strong alliances by means of grooming. According to the theory, this maximum group size is approximately 80 individuals.
However, somewhere over the course of human history, increasing predation risks forced our ancestors to live in groups larger than that. Therefore, our social bonding mechanism must be more effective than grooming. Gossip, or talking about social topics, fits the bill. Like grooming, it is a social activity that allows us to display selective interest in other individuals, strengthening relationships. But it also has a number of advantages over grooming: It can involve more than two participants at once, and it allows individuals to exchange social information, so they can learn about events they did not see themselves. In short, gossiping makes maintaining social bonds much more efficient.
According to researchers, ninety percent of all human communication is based on gossiping or storytelling. Unlike animals, human beings then evolved to be able to convey information about things that don’t actually exist. Yet this is actually a good thing because fables, myths, sagas, and religions bring people together. They can inspire uplifting feelings, provide a framework for beautiful works of art, and enable people to cooperate on a large scale. Without generally accepted narratives and descriptions of items such as laws, money, nations and businesses, it is impossible for complex human societies to exist. Of course, society’s stories can also spread fake news, hatred, intolerance, persecution, and genocide.
Humans prefer power to truth
When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion.Yuval Noah Harari
The truth is that truth was never high on the agenda of Homo sapiens. Many assume the world is swayed by facts and objectivity – if you assume the best idea wins. But we live in a world where people are bored, impatient, emotional, and need complicated things distilled into easy-to-grasp scenes. Great ideas explained poorly can go nowhere while old or wrong ideas told compellingly can ignite a revolution.
As a species, humans prefer power to truth. You cannot organize masses of people effectively without relying on some fictions and mythologies. If you stick to an unalloyed reality, few people will follow you. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions.
A fact is 1+1 = 2. That’s true. But a good story is 1+1 = 3. That’s power.
As George Packer puts it, “most durable narratives are not the ones that stand up best to fact-checking. They’re the ones that address our deepest needs and desires.”
Besides religions and ideologies, commercial firms also rely on fiction. Branding often involves retelling the same fictional story again and again, until people become convinced it is the truth. McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Coca-Cola, for instance, spends billions of dollars each year linking their fast food and sugary drink with happy and healthy young people frolicking in a park. It doesn’t regale you with pictures of overweight diabetes patients in the hospital on an IV drip.
It’s true that fact and logic are usually the best way to succeed in an argument and debate, but if you want to succeed in life it is not necessarily all useful; entrepreneurs are disproportionately valuable precisely because they are not confined to doing those things that make sense to the general public. The likes of Steve Jobs, James Dyson, Peter Thiel, and Elon Musk are all great at telling good stories and getting people’s attention, and the best story always wins.
Perhaps, the most successful story ever told is the story of money, because it’s the only story that everybody, almost without exception, believes. If you think about something like the US dollar, it’s just a story. It’s just a green piece of paper with a picture of the dead white man. You can’t eat it. You can’t drink it. Its value comes only from our imagination. And the amazing thing is that almost everybody believes it, not just the Americans or the Europeans. Not everyone believes in God, but almost everyone believes in the Greenback. This is really the most successful story ever told in human history.
The Science of Storytelling
There is a scientific explanation as to why stories affect us and help us connect with each other. A group of neuroscientists at Princeton University discovered a neurological connection between stories and the area of the brain responsible for trust, empathy, and compassion. These feelings are controlled by a chemical called oxytocin, which tends to increase when we are told well-crafted and relatable stories. They also found that when listening to a captivating story, the same areas of the brain light up in both the storyteller and listener.
Simply put, when you hear an impactful or moving story, your brain reacts as if you are experiencing it yourself, and thus connecting us on a deeper level. Because of this, stories have a unique ability to build connections and influence our social behavior, for better or worse.
Knowing how and why stories affect us, can help us employ this valuable skill in both professional and personal spheres. Engaging narratives can mean many things: It can help charities attract more donations and open new doors for parents raising their children, just as much as it can sell products and services. In a TEDx Talk, NYU Masters student Amanda D’Annucci argued that “stories can heal, stories can teach, stories can inspire, stories can enlighten and stories can resolve.” With these words, she captured the power of storytelling perfectly.
From Storytelling to Narrative Building
It’s easy to tell your story and spread it when you live in a tribe of 100 people, but when you live in a digital world where information is infinite, choices are abundant, distractions are everywhere and people’s attention becomes the scarcest resource. It requires new tactics – from top-down storytelling to the bottom-up narrative building.
Packy McCormick, the founder and writer behind Not Boring – a blog focused on tech, business strategy and pop culture, argues that in the world of abundant where you can read, watch, or listen to anything for practically $0, the ability to tell a great story is a crucial building block. But stories alone aren’t enough. You need to let your community join in painting a narrative.
Packy points out that stories and narratives sound like they’re the same thing, but there is the distinction between the two:
- Stories are discrete. One essay, one event, one customer experience. Someone might say, “Did you hear the story about Company X doing thing Y?”
- Narratives are made up of all of the stories about a company, which crystallize into what people believe and say about the company as a whole. The narrative around a company is similar to its reputation or brand.
If a company writes a blog post about its origins, that’s a story. If an investor goes on a podcast to talk about the company, that’s a story. If the founder writes a thread on Twitter, that’s a story. If a customer tells their friends about a good interaction they had with customer service, that’s a story. If a developer tells other developers the company’s APIs are clean, that’s a story. If TechCrunch reports on their latest funding round, that’s a story.
These individual stories add up to form a narrative, which constantly changes and evolves, but has a direction, size, and tone.
But a narrative also compounds. Positive stories add up, particularly when they’re positive for the same reason. Stories reinforce stories reinforce stories. A narrative forms. There’s no formula, but the ingredients are:
- Number of stories told
- Ratio of positive to negative stories
- Consistency of positive or negative attributes
- Number of different storytellers
- Credibility of storyteller to the target audience
- Confirmatory updates
- Persistence of stories over time
The best thing for a company, a project, a movement, marketing or a political campaign’s narrative is to have a lot of people with credibility to the target audience tell stories with roughly similar positive themes again and again over a long period of time, with new examples of the same positive themes added in. The more authentic and the less coordinated it all seems, the better.
The old way to build a positive narrative was to tell a consistent story about yourself over time. The new way is to have other people tell your story for you, either directly or by association.
It’s hard to pull off, particularly because so much of it needs to be organic, seeded with just the right amount of direction from the company or team and it’s core supporters. When it works, though, it’s a powerful thing, the benefits of which compound over time. Because the longer people believe something about a company, the longer they’re likely to believe something about that company. Great examples are Apple, Tesla, and Nike.
Here is what entrepreneurs and founders should do: build companies with compelling products and tell the initial stories – your story of ‘why’ that will eventually create the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of your purpose and mission. It is the art of translating ‘who you are’ and ‘what you do’ into action through a well-expressed narrative.
Then finding investors, partners, influencers, early adopters, and customers to help you accelerate turning those stories into a collective, cohesive narrative that cuts through the noise, and finally gets out of the way, letting more and more people tell stories that shape the narrative and take on a life of its own. It’s all about organic, bottom-up, community-driven narrative creation and distribution.
Logic makes people think, Emotion makes people act
Our mental and emotional world is governed by biochemical mechanisms that have been shaped over millions of years of evolution. According to Harari, our subjective state of mind is not governed by external things such as money and political rights. It is determined by complex systems of nerves, neurons and various biochemical substances such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.
Consequently, events such as winning the lottery, buying a new house, being promoted or finding love do not create happiness. People only become happy as a result of one thing: chemical reactions when different hormones flow through our body and electrical signals trigger various parts of our brain. Biologists are not super-fanatical, however; they recognize that psychological and sociological factors also play a role, but biochemistry is the most important factor.
If you want to become influential, if you want to engage the audience, if you want to inspire people to change, it’s not enough to connect people rationally and logically. Leaders need to create an emotional connection in order to stimulate the energy and collective spirit needed to power change because logic makes people think. That’s all. It only makes people think, it doesn’t make people take action. Emotion makes people act. Emotion inspires people to make a change.
Winning hearts and minds is without doubt one of the hardest parts of change to achieve. But when it comes to uniting people and convincing millions of others to believe in you, then your stories should always be less of a matter of the head and more of a matter of the heart. People need to hear their own lives reflect in your stories, connecting with your stories on a much deeper and more powerful emotional and psychologically level.
Human is the only species that has been blessed with the ability to have thoughts about our thoughts which we call self-reflection, the ability to share and understand the feeling of others which we call empathy, and the ability to create and spread imaginative ideas which we call fictions. These God-given abilities could be a double-edged sword, they could inspire people to build hospitals, schools and rockets as well as armies and nuclear bombs, they could create human civilizations and wipe out civilizations.
As Joseph Goebbels, the notorious Nazi propaganda maestro and perhaps the most accomplished media wizard of the modern age stated that “A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth”. That’s why the ability to think for oneself – the power of questioning and thinking independently – becomes increasingly crucial for us to uncover trues from lies, facts from frictions, especially in the age of the internet and social media – we are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.
Don’t fall into tidy categories of leader or follower. Lead yourself. Ask questions. Check the facts before you decide to believe and act. Never look to a teacher, an authority, or a person of influence as a replacement for your own judgment.
Best story may spread like wildfire, winning the hearts and minds of millions, but you must think for yourself!